Thursday, April 05, 2007

Review of The Knowledge Deficit

Andy Rotherham with an insightful review of E.D. Hirsch's book, The Knowledge Deficit:

Hirsch’s basic premise, laid out most clearly in his most recent book The Knowledge Deficit, is so straightforward that observers outside of education are often surprised at the uproar he sparks. Most school curricula are, according to Hirsch, vacuous and disjointed. Hirsch believes that knowledge acquisition is a deliberate process, requiring curriculum that emphasizes content rather than process and it must be organized around systemic rather than random acquisition of knowledge. Obvious? Well, this is a fundamental dispute in education circles because, as Hirsch discusses in Knowledge Deficit, much of American educational theory is predicated on 19th century romantic ideas that celebrate learning and the acquisition of knowledge as a natural process. Where reading is concerned, Hirsch is especially vehement that lack of attention to curriculum is hamstringing efforts to improve literacy.

Hirsch does not just talk about these issues in the abstract. His Core Knowledge Foundation provides a specific, and consequently controversial, curriculum that is used in many public schools and is especially popular among public charter schools. The Core Knowledge curriculum unabashedly champions facts and content even in the earliest grades. Rather than the catch as catch can approach to curriculum that still characterizes much of American education, Core Knowledge makes clear the specific body of knowledge that students should master as they progress through school.

Whether a specific body of knowledge is necessary for "cultural literacy" is, of course, not just an educational issue. Hirsch has argued, first in his nationally bestselling book Cultural Literacy and later in The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them that a common body of knowledge and cultural understanding is one of the things that unites us as Americans. Not surprisingly this has led multi-culturists to attack Hirsch for what they perceive as an assault on liberal values in education. It is an irony that bewilders Hirsch because what he is espousing is in fact a profoundly liberal and egalitarian notion.

Hirsch's core idea is that shared knowledge is the ticket to democratic inclusion and participation, in other words a key strategy for expanding opportunity. How, he wonders, can people actively participate in a society without understanding its underpinnings, history, and shared culture? In other words, an inclusive society cannot eschew common cultural capital but must embrace it. A lifelong Democrat, Hirsch is particularly irritated at continually being dubbed a conservative by the educational establishment. (A noteworthy exception is the American Federation of Teachers, which nationally has long embraced Hirsch's core tenets about curriculum and aggressively promoted this book.)


Hirsch, E. D. Jr. (2006). The Knowledge Deficit. NY, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Pp. 192     $22     ISBN-13/EAN 9780618657315

Reviewed by Andrew J. Rotherham
Education Sector

April 3, 2007

E.D. Hirsch is an unlikely combatant in the culture wars. A slightly awkward man with a quick smile and insatiable curiosity he used to be best known in academic circles, as literary critic and author of two noteworthy books about the poets Blake and Wordsworth. For a time, he was also a leading scholar of hermeneutics, the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural texts. But more recently the University of Virginia English professor, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and author of over a half dozen influential books on education reform, has become a lightening rod nationally and within the educational establishment. Hirsch, Harvard professor Howard Gardner said in 1997, "has swallowed a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education. If this kind of angry, stereotypical thinking is what results from a 'core knowledge' orientation, then I want no part of it."

 Subscribe in a reader